Milano Centrale

In Milano, Stazione Centrale has a bad reputation. It’s dangerous, prostitutes pickpockets gypsies beggars junkies hang around. Stay away from it, they used to say to me. I didn’t listen. When I was a teenager, something drew me there. I thought it was the trains: it was the station.

I loved the platforms. I used to sneak past the men in the booths checking tickets; I would hang around waiting for them to be distracted, then dash through, crouching down, running at the rhythm of my nervous heartbeats. Luckily for me, more often than not, inspectors were too busy listening to the football on tinny transistor radios.

At 3 pm, the Freccia del Sud from Sicily would arrive. People got off the train holding cardboard suitcases, one tentative step after another, down the three metal steps. Men and women locking arms walked down the platform, under the enormous vaulted roof, supported by cast-iron beams and pillars, covered in decades of soot. Children rushed behind, carrying string bags bulging with food. I listened to their conversations. Tomatoes and aubergines from Milano have no flavour, they used to say.

A young couple sat on a marble chimera facing the platforms. He had a rough face, lined and browned by the Southern sun, proud eyes of darkness; I could not see hers, hidden by a wide-brimmed straw hat. I saw their hands, unwrapping a parcel containing roasted fish; his were working hands, large and yellowed by calluses; hers were deft and long-fingered, picking tiny, translucent bones from the fish. “When will we eat fish again?” he asked. “I don’t know. When we get back home, for Christmas. How can the fish be fresh, so far away from the sea?”

Sometimes, the emigrants would go to the souvenir shops at the end of the platforms, to buy gaudy Madonnas surrounded in twinkling lights. “For protection” they would say,    extracting oily notes from purses sawn to the inside of their trousers. Next door was the Wax Museum, where the exhibits were not half as interesting as the visitors. It was the only heated place, at the time. And it was free. The attendant booth was empty; the Museum was about to close for good. Meanwhile, in a flurry of skirts, gypsy women played the game of three cards, in front of the dusty wax-casts of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference. Two or three women sat on a park bench, their hands tossing cards back and forth on stained headscarves on their laps, while their fox-faced children collected bets. Punters watched, shrouded in cigarette smoke: they never guessed. Every now and then the police would come in and throw everybody out. I hid behind Marie Antoinette’s skirts, terrified, while the police and the gypsies exchanged insults I didn’t understand.

In 2005, the station was renovated. The soot was washed off, the trains from Sicily no longer exist. The wax museum has given way to high street stores. I only go there to catch trains now.

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